Image courtesy Grassrooted

For nearly three decades, it remained Sri Lanka’s biggest story. Over the years, the resplendent island became known, not for its human development indicators or as a vibrant democracy, but as the birth place of the deadly Liberation Tigers – and what fuelled its birth, growth and its destructive impact on the island.

When I walked into a newsroom two decades ago, the war was the biggest story and it stayed that way. The coveted beats included defence and crime, with most other ‘beats’ being treated with unexpressed disdain, crumbs that fell off a disinterested news editor’s busy desk. Health reporters were important not because of the importance of the information they relayed but because, reporting on casualties was an important dimension in the coverage of a violent conflict. The news room’s priorities were largely decided by events outside. One of my new editors often used to remark: “It was not the editors but Prabhakaran who dictated headlines and influenced a day’s coverage of vents.”

Over the years, a certain evolution took place in the manner media covered the war. It became more nuanced with a level of focus on the political considerations that influenced the violent conflict and the perspectives of rights and identities. But counting dead bodies and digging into alleged military corruption dominated.

The body counting ceased when the war formally ended on 16 May 2009, bringing with it, a host of new issues for debate and reporting. While the war raged on, despite the violence unleashed upon journalists and media activists – whose lives at times seemed expendable as much as soldiers’ lives were – the State’s primary focus was naturally the war itself.

With some defence correspondents and others facing violent consequences whenever their reportage displeased the incumbency, actual self censorship is a residue of war, among other impacts borne by the practitioners. In contrast to the years of war, there is more deadly silence today, a meek silence that had snuffed out truthful reporting. As journalists continue with the mutilating practice of self censorship, post war has also come to mean, scant coverage of what was once considered the ‘national question.’ It is as if on 16 May 2009, the conflict itself as resolved.

Five years on, the southern media hardly reflects the need to address what was previously referred to as that ‘national question.’ The crushing of the LTTE military was supposed to be, only part solution. The political dimensions were to be considered thereafter, but there is apparent lack of interest.

Sri Lanka’s post war media coverage can be a case study for those who want to research on the residual impact of war on media practitioners. Besides the deafening silence, the lack of nuanced discussion and debate, the convergence of opinion and the stark polarization of the media community through a labelling process as traitors and patriots (with specific treatment for the two groups), war has left its indelible imprint on the media industry.

With the acceptance of self censorship as a ‘way of life,’ it is fair and accurate reporting that suffered throughout and after the war, with truth being the first casualty. In the afterglow of the war victory, southern journalism reflected the triumphalism of the State – with the North being made to feel the agonizing pain of the vanquished. South had the winners, though many a southern colleague also ended up victims –not always physically.

War’s legacy is never easy to bear. The crises and turmoil experienced by a country are naturally mirrored in the arts and literature of the times. A review of Sri Lanka journalism would offer a classic case study of war-conditioned journalists who have become largely jaded and selfish.

There aren’t too many colleagues who would have the emotional honesty to admit that besides being jaded– they are also traumatized. Do journalists need to have their own houses bombed and driven out of homes to know the impacts of war? The pain of deadly loss and life-altering anguish?

In the end, just as much as truth became the first casualty in war, so has good journalism. Responsible journalism that would move beyond triumphalism and petty divides to visualize a country that is plural and peaceful is what on seeks but largely fails to find. The kind of journalism that promotes co-existence and does not contribute to the creation of conditions that may result in repeated violence.

In retrospect, we who are among the living and have lived through the entire war, can feel grateful to be along the living. Not everyone was this lucky. So many dear and near to us have lost their lives, if not directly, indirectly due to the war. We have, collectively lived through so much violence and now continue to live with the memories of fear and uncertainty of violent times in the recent past.

Five years on, Sri Lanka has inched its way forward. That is, despite war crimes charges and an international investigation into rights violations by the State and the Liberation Tigers during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

Focusing on reconciliation in the aftermath of the war, the LLRC has identified, though by no means comprehensive, three main areas that are vital to strengthening freedom of expression in the country, including expeditious investigations into the unresolved murders of journalists, passage of freedom of information legislation (that saw two abortive attempts) and increased physical access to reporters to the North and East.

The LLRC’s many recommendations and their slow and/or lack of implementation also form a part of Sri Lanka’s post war legacy. At the insistence of India, Colombo has ensured the establishment of a Northern Provincial Council (NPC) and elected representatives, but not in the spirit in which power devolution was introduced and envisaged. It is to be the consolation prize for maintaining good neighbourly relations with India but beyond it’s the NPC, there is little Colombo does, to treat the root cause of the conflict.

Five years on, triumphalism has hardly subsided. Living through this crucial period, we remain chained to our own past and practices. We remain as divided as we were then, unable to discover the role of responsible journalism in a country that is emerging after decades- long violence. If the LTTE was separatist by nature, so are we and sadly, we remain so.

As did democracy and rights, Sri Lanka’s journalism too has taken a nosedive, in the aftermath of the war. Some of these are considered ‘closed’ topics. Divided, we debate as to why Sri Lanka retains its ranking as one of the world’s worst possible places for journalists to live in. The New York- based Committee to Protect Journalists in their Global Impunity Index 2014 has again ranked Sri Lanka as the fourth worst place for journalists– still – due to the number of unresolved murders of journalists. Iraq, Somalia and the Philippines occupy the top slots while countries with raging conflicts such as Syria and Afghanistan, are ranked below.

The report states: “Impunity in Sri Lanka is a major factor behind high number of journalists going into exile, and though five years after the war, the government has shown no political will to address its record of perfect impunity.”

Likewise, Reporters Sans Borders has ranked Sri Lanka 162nd out of 179 countries in 2014 and the International Federation of Journalists, world’s largest media trade union, has observed poor improvement in the island’s media status.

We rant against the rankings and have hair-splitting arguments on the validity of the methodologies, but we hardly ever ask ourselves why. Five years on, we still squabble and are not even willing to consider what crucial and pivotal roles we should be playing in shaping our democracy.

Our past is intrinsically linked to our future as individual practitioners and as a collective. But the vital questions are not being asked. What is war’s own impact on us? Beyond triumphalism, where should Sri Lanka go? Or should we? If yes, is Sri Lankan journalism ready to take a leap of faith and consider, responsible post-war journalism? How do we evolve and become futuristic in our journalistic endeavours?

There are no complete studies on the impact of war on Sri Lankan media industry and the profession of journalism. Some of the informal studies that are currently underway can shed some light on the crisis faced by the industry as well as the individual practitioners.

The first step is to acknowledge the existence of a problem. Or multiple problems, such as our on media illiteracy, that we too are victims of trauma and depression, that we practice self censorship without even trying to push the envelope a bit and how our own divisions and insecurities make it difficult for journalism to become meaningful.

Undoubtedly, there is a de-escalation of physical violence post May 2009, directed towards journalists. But the violence of the past had left an indelible impression on the journalistic community. If there were no reported murders of journalists for their journalism, the deadly silence of this expressive group of people reflects a silence forced upon us by circumstances.

There is still no justice for the murdered, the abducted or those forced out of their country of origin. There is an absence of legal processes and an unrepentant maintenance of restrictive laws. The State controls not just the State-owned media but virtually, all the media. That is a given. There is an unofficial censorship coupled with self censorship that would be criminal for a democracy, for it denies space for free expression .Economic pressures are often applied to keep the media establishments self-gagged. Adding to all this, there is significant levels of media illiteracy that forces the practitioners to either identify with the State or to remain chillingly quiet.

Our own progress as a profession and professionals is impeded by several factors. There is serious and continued polarization of the media. We ourselves label practitioners as ‘traitors’ and ‘patriots’ and use media space to condemn each other. The most serious reputational attacks on media personnel have been delivered by media houses alone, the expression of hatred often turning into undisguised use of hate speech.

We continue to limit ourselves, unable to decide what is national interest and what is treason, avoiding any critique on the State, not only for the fear of reprisals but also due to the convenience it affords.

Due to the overt manipulation of the media by the State, Sri Lankan journalism has sunk to such depths as to celebrate embedded journalism, the pre-selected journalists who would be included in guided tours for purposes of propaganda and chosen for their trait of being partisan an unquestioning, the very essence of journalism. What was produced by them and are now a part of the history of Sri Lankan journalism are the flawed and one-sided reports that are distorted records of a protracted war.

We have failed to take a professional look at ourselves, critically examining what needs to be done. The convergence of opinion had further shrunk the media space, but to expand the space, there is a need to build professionalism – among ourselves, complete with a certain setting of industry standards that would stand the test of time.

Five years on, there is societal need for the conscious creation of space for dissent and for the practitioners to learn and respect diversity and to defend the same. There is every need to oppose the restrictions that inhibit and prevent journalists from the delivery of good journalism.

We have failed to fight effectively when restrictive regulations have been either proposed or reemployed, such as the reactivation of the Press Council Law. We have allowed the RTI bills to be stillborn and a campaign to promote it recently as thwarted, largely by the owners of media institutions that the authorities. We have failed to promote enabling laws that would enhance professionalism in a post- war island or help the evolution of institutions that would aid good journalism in the country.

Post war offers a golden opportunity to the media industry and the practitioners to unshackle themselves from a restrictive past. Amidst the new roadblocks, let’s hope we collectively find the courage to be different and introduce a brand of journalism that is futuristic.

Dilrukshi Handunnetti is senior journalist, a lawyer and an activist.

[Editors note: Watch a TV interview with the author, who was until recently Senior Deputy Editor at Ceylon Today, here, first broadcast in February 2013.]